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Renault to ask Senard to mend Nissan alliance as chairman

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As Renault SA prepares to replace Carlos Ghosn, the tandem emerging to take over appears likely to split his responsibilities in line with the wishes of France, its most powerful shareholder.

[PARIS] As Renault SA prepares to replace Carlos Ghosn, the tandem emerging to take over appears likely to split his responsibilities in line with the wishes of France, its most powerful shareholder.

Michelin CEO Jean-Dominique Senard, who's expected to be named chairman on Thursday, would also be charged with smoothing out the strained relationship with partner Nissan Motor Co, a person familiar with the matter said. Thierry Bollore, currently the interim CEO, would handle daily operations should his position become permanent.

French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said late Tuesday that the government favoured dual leadership atop the companies in which it holds a stake, with the chairman overseeing long-term strategic planning. France owns 15 per cent of Renault, with extra voting rights and two seats on the board. A spokesman for the carmaker declined to comment.

"Mr Senard would make an excellent chairman," for Renault, Mr Le Maire told BFM TV, underlining the government's esteem for the 65-year-old executive. The finance minister fell short of confirming that Mr Senard or Mr Bollore, 55, would be appointed.

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Ghosn has been in custody in Japan since Nov 19, when police boarded his jet shortly after it landed at Tokyo's Haneda airport. He's been charged with understating his income by tens of millions of dollars at Nissan and transferring personal trading losses to the company. If convicted, he could face decades in jail. Ghosn has denied wrongdoing.

Ghosn's downfall has roiled the pact between Nissan and Renault that the globe-trotting executive held together for two decades. Mitsubishi Motors Corp joined in 2016. All three companies have said the alliance is essential to remain competitive at a time of costly changes sweeping through the industry, from the decline of diesel cars to the enormous investment required for electric and autonomous vehicles.

Nissan and Mitsubishi ousted Ghosn as chairman days after his arrest. Now Renault is expected to appoint Mr Senard and Mr Bollore as his replacements at a board meeting Thursday, people with knowledge of the talks said.

Once Ghosn goes, the next step may be picking new leadership at the world's biggest automotive alliance. On Tuesday, Mr Le Maire said the "absolute priority" for Renault's next chairman should be "strengthening the alliance and getting in touch with Japanese authorities."

Mr Le Maire previously has said that it's Renault's CEO who heads the Amsterdam-based venture that manages the partnership. Still, Mr Senard would take the lead in handling alliance matters, said the person familiar, asking not to be identified discussing confidential matters.

Mr Senard would bring a big change of style to Renault. Cordial and soft-spoken -- some would say austere -- his demeanor contrasts with Ghosn's bigger-than-life persona. He's also in the good graces of the government, which has had a sometimes rocky relationship with Ghosn.

French President Emmanuel Macron called Michelin a "model company" last year, praising it for its frequent dialogue with unions. The government assigned Mr Senard to write a report on how French companies can contribute to the general welfare. The document concluded that companies shouldn't be accountable only to their shareholders, but also the common good. It advocated putting more employee representatives on company boards.

BOLLORE'S ROLE

Should Mr Senard take the lead at the partnership, the role of Mr Bollore, who started his career with Michelin, would be somewhat less prominent. Some Renault insiders have expressed concern that, as a former protege of Ghosn, Mr Bollore might be met with distrust in Japan.

Mr Bollore had been seen as Ghosn's heir apparent since February, when he was promoted to chief operating officer, and had been handling many of the day-to-day duties at Renault even before his boss's arrest. At that time, Ghosn pledged to use his final four years as CEO focused on a plan to "make the alliance irreversible."

Mr Bollore, a soft-spoken Frenchman from Brittany, joined Renault in 2012 from car-parts supplier Faurecia SA, where he rose through the ranks to become vice president with responsibilities for global industry, quality and packaging. He started his career at Michelin, working there for a number of years at the same time as Ghosn, who called him a "good candidate" to become Renault CEO.

It's not just the government that speaks highly of the Michelin CEO. Franck Daout, a representative of the CFDT union at Renault, said "we would be supporting Mr Senard as the leader who handles the alliance."

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